What should the robust Permit-to-Work process look like?

For years, paper permit-to-work handouts were the main items on safety experts’ desks. However, a massive wave of digitalization and higher standards of efficiency are changing this path. 

Many EHS experts still prefer paper. “It is just bigger,” says one of the Unite-X clients, an EHS leader in a global corporation, unfolding a large sheet of paper with a printed version on it. I immediately see everything I need.”

It is hard to argue that a small-screen tablet provides less space for an overview. However, digital permit-to-work software offers many other benefits that outweigh the print size.

In this article, we investigate the impact of digitalization on the permitting process and how digital permits exceed paper in helping to achieve Operational Safety Excellence.

What is the Permit-to-Work?

Simply put, a permit-to-work system is a formal process for stating exactly what work is to be done, where, and when. Permits authorize workers to perform specific tasks within specific time frames utilizing standard procedures. This way the Permit-to-Work process helps protect the health and safety of frontline workers and the site’s assets and environment.

The permit includes information about required safety precautions, detailed information about how to perform the job, and any critical handover information. The Permit-to-Work process also triggers warnings about potential hazards, prevents errors, helps solve conflicts, and minimizes risk at the plant.

This definition of the Permit-to-Work is mainly related to compliance: ensuring all the jobs are done according to the head SHE office rules and government regulations.

However, the permitting system is much more than just a shield protecting from internal and external audits. Actually, an optimal and effective permitting system can become a pillar of achieving Operational Safety Excellence.

Jobs performed under permits form a core of the plant’s flow. Records of planned, active, and closed permits can tell just as fascinating a story about life on the production site as bills written on papyrus can about life in ancient Egypt.

Permits are vital for communication between site management, plant supervisors and operators, and frontline workers. They contain an enormous amount of data, which, properly grouped, processed, and analyzed, can signal problems and losses, triggering continuous improvements.

With the crucial role of the permitting process in the plant’s life, a non-optimal permitting process can significantly impact the plant’s general efficiency and safety levels.

Paper Permit-to-Work problems

If you walk into a large production site where paper-based security regulation is still in place, it is fascinating to observe their archive. You will most likely see towers of paper on the desks of Safety Department folks and folders with sticky notes indicating the time and date of the documentation.

For audit, this is everything from inconvenience to a real nightmare. Auditors usually pick a random document from those piles. However, getting valuable information about the real situation of plant safety, especially in dynamics, is close to impossible.

However, an audit is only one perspective of the issue. Paper-based Permit-to-Work process often has a bad reputation as a source of frustration for the people who work with it daily because of:

  • Lack of overview for leading people to make decisions
  • Inaccurate or poor information communication
  • Incorrect measures or unclear descriptions caused by incorrect work permits
  • High costs caused by unnecessary waiting times, especially for contractors
  • Mismatches in the execution of processes among the various teams and plants due to unclear rules
  • High risk of people breaching rules caused by unworkable procedures

In our (Unite-X) practice, we saw cases where teams shared the observation that the other team had a different “style” of creating permits, which made communication harder. Instead of solving up-to-date issues, they first needed to translate the permit into the “language” understandable by everyone in the daily meetings.

Hands up here: Simply transferring from paper to an electronic permitting system does not immediately solve these issues. The solutions lie mainly in proper process design. Let’s take a look at how the process should be built to move closer to Operational Safety Excellence.

1. Lean

If you walk into any plant in the world in the morning, you’ll usually find workers waiting around for the permits necessary to do their jobs. Instead of working hands-on, they might spend anywhere from 60 to 90 minutes every morning just waiting for permits to be approved and issued. This is not an efficient use of anyone’s time or money!

Plus, workers may be anxious to start their jobs once the permits are assigned, or they might feel uninspired and disengaged from their work. They might also feel pressure to rush into their work to make up for the lost time. It can be hard to plan ahead for their day, so they might grab more material than they need for their assigned task. This leads to increased waste and risk of incidents at the site.

Instead, applying lean methodologies improves safety performance and reduces waste in safety processes.

2. Standardized

Within the standardizing principles lies the idea that every abnormality in the process signals a potential error.

As a tool that people use in their day-to-day routines, the Permit to Work process needs to be standardized. Permitting process utilizes practices and procedures that are constantly re-used. It is important to have a deep level of standardization so shifts can come and use the tool, knowing precisely what needs to be done.

A standardized way of handing out permits by using pre-defined templates, by default compliant with corporate regulations, also frees up the time and effort necessary to kick off the continuous improvement mindset of the team.

“Without standards, there can be no kaizen.” This famous quote, attributed to Taiichi Ohno, is also very relevant to the Permit-to-Work process. If you want to learn more about the role of standardization in Operational Safety Excellence, download the white paper here.

3. Measurable

Strong, data-driven processes should be the basis for good, efficient decision-making. Therefore, it is important to build a process that will allow us to capture and measure the performance of Permit to Work from all possible perspectives.

Measurement and re-measurements help to extract necessary data for your site to:

  • Create reachable goals and long-term objectives
  • Understand any deviations from those goals and objectives
  • Measure progress towards those goals and objectives
  • Understand the root cause of any issues, should they arise
  • Meaningfully benchmark results

Moreover, a proper measurement system will help to identify “waste” as non-value-adding activities and to re-balance effort towards value-adding.

So digital or paper?

Looking at the above about three characteristics of a decent permitting system – lean, standardized, and measurable – digital Permit to Work systems obviously will serve this goal better. No human can beat the ability of modern software to consider all necessary settings, prompt handouts and reviews, re-use templates, and close the loop of feedback.

Instead of using multiple manual checklists with manual efforts, digital systems streamline the processes and save both time and resources.

There is also a common hurdle that “digitalization makes people stop thinking” has actually proved to be wrong in 2022. It is totally the opposite, without non-necessary hassle, people tend to be more creative and motivated to improve processes around them even further. We explore this topic with a plant manager from DSM in our article “Digitalization can make people think”

No matter how small is the screen of your electronic device, only a digital system can allow you the fullest overview of the current status of the plant, including:

  • Real-time updates and actual situation overviews to the entire team
  • Ability to attach additional informational documents and work instructions to a permit
  • Ability to involve and reach all necessary parties simultaneously
  • A full overview of permits, their status, and their history
  • Ability to close the loop of learning and re-use the best practices.

These and other features give you comprehensive control over the plant that no paper tower archive can offer.

Digital Permit to Work: how to make it happen?

With its proven implementation framework, Unite-X supports and educates production teams to ensure that organizations elevate their performance towards operational safety excellence through digital tools.

We utilize industry knowledge, team effort, and digital tools to ensure a smooth implementation process. Read more about how the Unite-X Permit to Work software here.

Interested to learn more about Unite-Permit to Work capabilities?

Download the brochure

The brochure will give you a brief overview of the application of the Operational Safety Excellence domain to the Permit-to-Work process. It will also explain how Unite-X enables your company to operate at a higher level both in safety and productivity.

We are also ready to provide you with the necessary documentation and guide you through the stages of realizing your safety ambitions within the organization, business unit, or plant upon request.

Please submit your contact details to get access to the brochure